CALGARY — Here in the Stampede City, when a cowboy hits the dirt inside of eight seconds, the gravel-throated rodeo announcer’s best friend is this ol’ favorite: “Give that cowboy a big round of applause folks, ‘cause that’s the only pay he’ll be takin’ home tonight!”
Through 18 mostly fruitless games the Calgary Flames have earned their participation buckles by spurring like hell and hanging on for dear life. But they’re falling off the bull in about 6.5 seconds on most nights, and on Monday Calgary managed the near impossible: a 13-shot overtime loss. A defeat with an asterisk that leaves the Flames at 6-9-3 on the season. They fell behind 2-0 in the first period—“a spanking,” coach Bob Hartley called it—then miraculously failed to surrender the pivotal third goal until overtime, forging an unlikely comeback in the third period. Final shot totals, 35-13; final score, 3-2 Sharks in OT. “You’re saying it looked like the last five minutes of Rocky I?” asked Mike Cammalleri, who is far past the point in his career where games like this one are any fun at all. “We’re all proud people. We don’t want to play in games like that… I don’t see any moral victory in this.”
The Calgary Flames are Canada’s most loveable hockey team, the new Pesky Sens. They work their tails off every single night, and though an entire game’s worth of cheering was stuffed into about a 20-minute window for fans at the Saddledome, even at the exorbitant prices that Canadian NHL teams charge, the people got their money’s worth in pure toil and sweat.
When you are in Year 1 of The Great Rebuild, this is a place to start. Or perhaps, as Flames fans look up the highway—and down in the standings—at all those sweethearts in Edmonton, it is THE place to start. “It’s a way of life we’re trying to instill,” Hartley declared after practice the day before. “The Monahans, the Brodies, the Backlunds, the Baertschis, the Colbornes. My job is to make sure they grow straight in this organization. I don’t want to create monsters. Guys who feel because they score 10 goals, there’s an entitlement. Whether you’re the most talented guy on the team, or the least talented guy, hard work is not an option.”
As if to bludgeon that point home, the Flames traded on Friday for blueliner Ladislav Smid, a low-skill, high-character, blood-‘n’-guts defenceman who debuted Monday. But the question on Calgary radio was, “Doesn’t this run against every tenet of a rebuild?” With No. 1 defenceman Mark Giordano out long-term, why would GM Jay Feaster move 22-year-old Roman Horak and a goalie (Laurent Broissoit) who is fresh out of junior, for a 27-year-old, third-pairing D-man making $3.5 million per season? Why not just play the cards you have, and collect the high draft pick at the end of the season?
Then you watch these players play, and you realize why: Management owes it to this roster to allow them to at least compete. That is why Smid is here. How could Feaster and president of hockey operations Brian Burke possibly look down at this roster and not lend a hand? This team simply will not quit, even though—on paper—the Flames have been a lottery team since Day 1.
This isn’t Burke trading a bunch of unknown draft picks for Phil Kessel to kick-start a Maple Leafs rebuild. The Flames have tons of cap room, and, for young players, the shot-blocking Smid is a perfect example of how the game is supposed to be played. And if things change, he’s an attractive deadline acquisition for some club seeking depth for a playoff run.
Besides, if there’s one thing they’ve learned from watching the Oilers from down here, it is that you should avoid a losing culture at all costs. The Flames aren’t winning a whole lot, but so far, the losses don’t really feel like losses. “We’re giving a lot of teams a tough time,” said Matt Stajan. “I feel like our record should be a little better than it is. It’s something we all talked about in training camp. Everyone is going to buy in. That’s the only way we’re going to be successful. You come to the rink, you put your worker’s hat off, and you work your butt off. That’s how it’s going to be here.”
It doesn’t sound like much, when you are San Jose or Pittsburgh. But it is something. And on Saturday night, Calgary hosts Edmonton for the first time this season. It will be heart and try, versus skill and dangle, and Edmonton will surely measure its own progress in season No. 4 of its rebuild, against the Flames, who are only two months out of the gate.
Who would have thought that this Flames team would be anyone’s barometer this season?